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Wednesday, 21 September 2011 16:12

Russia: Getting Africa Closer With Russkiy Mir

By Kester Kenn Klomegah

MOSCOW, Sept 21, 2011 (Buziness Africa) – During his presidency, Vladimir Putin thought of rebranding the image of Russia abroad through culture and established "Russkiy Mir" as an instrument to implement the cultural policy. Experts believe that cultural development plays an important role in strenthening foreign relations, helps significantly to form the image of the country abroad.  Thus, strengthening the cultural influence of Russia in different parts of the world is a top priority for the further evolution of a modern and multi-polar world order.


Russia's interests on the international stage through cultural society has been on the agenda for "Russkiy Mir" since its establishment, says Vadim T. Kirsanov, African Affairs Advisor at the Regional Projects Department of Russkiy Mir Foundation in an exclusive interview with Kester Kenn Klomegah in Moscow.


Buziness VadimKirsanov_Africa: After working several years in Ethiopia, what can you say about the development of Russian language and its culture among the people in Ethiopia?

Vadim T. Kirsanov: For five years, I worked as the director of the Russian Center for Science and Culture (RCSC) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. And I feel a need to express my opinion about the position of Russian language in Ethiopia and Africa in the past and nowadays.


First of all, there are several main factors, which promoted Russian in Africa in the last century. Being a winner of the 2nd World War, Soviet Union played an active role in the establishment of the post-war model of international relations. My country got high prestige in Africa by supporting the process of decolonization at the continent. As for Ethiopia, the country conquered the fascists invaders, my country naturally became there one of the most allied and friendly. Our cultural center in Addis Ababa "The Soviet permanent exhibition" established in 1945, was the first cultural center of my country in Africa.


Russian language was becoming more and more popular in Ethiopia in the second part of the 20th century. My country supported Ethiopia in a lot of aspects of it's development. Numerous cultural ties were established, when the visits of artists, actor, sportsmen and exchange of delegations of churches, youth organizations and so on had been taking place in 60s and 70s. The new building of the Soviet cultural center in Addis was inaugurated in 1968, and it was also among the first in Africa.


In 80s, Soviet cultural center got the special role in the period of "construction of socialism" in Ethiopia. That time, more than one thousand Ethiopian students every year went to study at the universities and colleges of my country. Their professional knowledge, based on the Russian language, played a major role in development. The demand for Russian was very high.


The role of graduates in the gaining of the positions of Russian language in Ethiopia, as well as in Africa, cannot be overestimated. When traveling around the different regions of Ethiopia, I met our graduates everywhere. They seek for making acquaintance, to discuss a lot of topics, because they missed Russia, missed the years in their universities, they wanted to have Russian libraries with actual and classic literature, a Russian speaking club and some regular Russian film shows.


There are more than 20,000 of them in the country. Very often they complained about isolation, having need for new ties to use more of their Russian experience, abilities in Russian language and in profession. The decrease of our cultural presence in Ethiopia and on African continent, started in 90s, was very deep, because of the changes of the political and economic life in our countries. The mighty financial ability of the Soviet Union was changed by the new Russia’s budget, which was enable to afford an active role of the state's cultural presence all over the world, and in Africa too. The bulk of the Russian cultural centers were closed in Africa. In Ethiopia, the teaching of Russian language remained permanent only in RCSC in Addis and in the Russian Red Cross Balcha Hospital.


BA: What are the attitudes among the Ethiopians to Russian programmes generally? How will you characterize the Russian diaspora in Ethiopia? What are some of their activities held together in the country?

VTK: I think, that Ethiopia belongs to those African countries where the destiny of the spread of the Russian language, despite of the serious problems of 90s, was rather happy. First of all, it is so, because of the historically proven good relations between the states and the peoples, enforced not only by common Orthodox roots of the national cultures, but by some particular events in the history. That is why the interest of Ethiopians to the Russian culture is always very high, as well as the interest to Abyssinia-Ethiopia from the side of the enlightened part of the Russian society.


Ethiopians are extremely proud, that the grandfather of the genius of Russian  literature, the great Russian poet, the creator of the Russian modern culture Alexander Pushkin, was of Abyssinia origin. A lot of people feel that Pushkin belongs to both peoples, his creative art unites the souls of Russians and Ethiopians. The main Pushkin's masterpieces were translated into Amharic and into some other languages of the peoples of Ethiopia. Russian authors' dramas were periodically staged by Ethiopian theatres. Special success belongs to the play "Inspector General" by Nikolai Gogol.


There are some hundred of Ethio-Russian married couples in several regions of Ethiopia. They contributed substantially to the spread of the Russian language and culture in the country. A lot of Russian women accepted the culture of their new native country and play an active role in social and cultural life. The Russian Center for Science and Culture (RCSC) became a home for their families. They use every opportunity to take part in the programmes of RCSC, including the celebrations of the Russian holidays and the renowned dates. Their children study Russian in the Russian language courses, working permanently in RCSC.


BA: What basic tools or activities formed the basis of your cultural work in Ethiopia. What are the particular problems and key challenges that faced you while working in the country?

VTK: RCSC in Addis practices the traditional forms of everyday activities: organizing of visits of scientific, cultural,  church, travelers' delegations and groups, as well as seminars, lectures on actual topics, concerts, poetry and clubs' meetings, film shows, candle theater rehearsals and performances, Children's Art Studio, meetings of Russian Graduates' Association and Russian Women Association members, recruiting of school graduates to study at the Russian universities. All the time, the interest of the public to the activities of RCSC is very high. You can find very often reports on functions of RCSC in Ethiopian mass media.


Having no chance to organize some ballet or theatrical, or circus performances in the cities of the country, or even a Russian chorus trip, like it was 20 years ago for the funds of the state, we have to limit RCSC activities by the above mentioned forms. If to use the commercial schemes of holding of concerts and cultural groups, and bigger collectives from Russia, then there is a bigger problem here: not a lot of African spectators can afford to buy tickets and all expenses should be covered mainly by sponsors. But, we believe the problem can be overcome. The understanding of the necessity to take African continent into the orbit of the state's sponsored concert tours and organizing exhibitions is growing from day to day.


BA: As an Advisor to Russkiy Mir, a non-profit foundation created and supported by the Kremlin to propagate Russian culture and language abroad, what suggestions and recommendations would you give aim at improving and strengthening Russian culture in Africa, taking your huge experience in Ethiopia as a basis?

VTK: First of all I would like to stress, that the most dependable basis for the demand for a foreign language in Africa is a big-scale economic cooperation, active participation of Russia in the intensification of development in the continent. The eradication of any forms of backwardness, hunger, diseases, illiteracy, the improvement of national economics of African countries - in all these challenges - Russian Federation should play it's own substantial role. But nowadays, it is important to support the image of Russia in the African continent, to contribute to the stimulation of the spread of Russian in the continent.


The task is to identify all schools of Russian in Africa, all needs to study Russian, existing in Africa and to propose maximal quantity of different forms of cooperation, according to the existing necessities and possibilities. We need to change the textbooks used in practical teaching of Russian in Africa, to refill the multi-media collections and the Russian books libraries. To achieve these aims, the Russkiy Mir Foundation is ready to propose such projects as:


Russian Centers. The Russkiy Mir Foundation has undertaken an international cultural project to develop Russian Centers in partnership with educational organizations around the world. The Foundation's Russian Centers are created with the aim of popularizing Russian language and culture as a crucial element of world civilization, supporting Russian language study programmes abroad, developing cross-cultural dialogues and strengthening understanding between cultures and peoples.


Russkiy Mir Cabinets. This programme of the Foundation is aimed at creating conditions conducive to learning about Russkiy Mir and improving Russian language skills. These facilities are unique in their individualized designs for each location, compact organization in small working spaces, simply set-up and easy use, as well as free access to resources for all who are interested.


We feel very impotent to contribute for stimulation of Russian language study and teaching, study of Russian literature, history and some applied sciences. One of the most important forms of work is:


Grants of the Russkiy Mir Foundation. The Foundation's grants support the integration of Russian language, history and culture into global society by promoting the use and teaching of Russian language abroad, by educating foreign audiences about Russia's rich heritage and culture, and by building new and stronger links between ethnic Russian communities abroad and the Russian Federation.


We are undertaking the decisive measures to issue assistance to the African universities, having Russian language chairs and programmes for teaching Russian, to issue some financial assistance for teaching of Russian, according to the programme of:


Russian Mir Professor, which supports the teaching of Russian language, literature and other related humanities programs at educational institutions outside Russia. The Foundation provides direct financial support for the teachers, professors and instructors at educational institutions participating in this program.


The Foundation is ready to propose some more programmes:      
Russkiy Mir Internships. In partnership with leading Russian educational institutions, the Foundation organizes internship programmes for foreign students studying the Russian language as well as Russian language teachers from abroad who seek to booster their level of competency. The internships include both lectures and practical training classes, and the participants receive certificates upon completion of the programme.


Russkiy Mir Students. At educational institutions outside Russia, students entering Russian-language programmes, new Russian library users, children of Russian educational centers and summer languages camps are registered as Russkiy Mir Students.


The Foundation is continuing some intensive negotiations with our permanent and potential partners in African countries. We are in the way now to conclude new agreements with the universities of Nigeria, Egypt, Zambia, Madagascar, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo and some other countries on cooperation in the field of teaching Russian and the implementation of some programmes proposed by the Foundation.


As for the spread of Russian culture, we should rely also on the active role of Russian Centers for Science and Culture or (RCSC), existing in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Republic of Congo, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. More funds should be allocated to organize regular tours of Russian music groups, dancers’ ensembles, exhibitions of artists, writers, lecturers and so forth.


BA: What's your opinion about current Russia's cultural policy in Africa compared to the Soviet times? Do you also suggest that the Kremlin and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation take steps to increase support for non-governmental organizations in order to push peoples' diplomacy as a way of raising the image of Russia in Africa?

VTK: I believe Russia has a potential possibility to restore it's cultural activeness in Africa in some renovated forms. From my point of view, cultural work is an important form of the diplomacy of "soft power" – the only form of diplomacy coincides with to the humanistic ideals of the current age. In the Soviet times, cultural diplomacy was combined with the traditional forms of the conducting of international relations.


The prestige of my country in Africa should be supported not only by the efforts of the Russian state, even when standing on the democratic platform. Understandably, real practical ties and friendly cooperation with the African peoples can be achieved through everyday communication of non-governmental organizations and people-to-people permanent dialogue. The lack of understanding of the importance of the cultural efforts of the society abroad, was a main shortage of the previous historical era.


The foreign politics were originated practically only from the official organs. The Russian culture, literary heritage is a good basis to construct the wonderful building of mutual understanding, humanistic harmony and just interaction and cooperation between peoples. "Russkiy Mir" – Russian World is an advanced form of interaction, proposed for Africa and for the whole world, where the peoples and individuals will culturally and spiritually be united on the basis of the appreciation of the humanistic ideals of the Russian cultural heritage. (END)


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